When I was in college out in Los Angeles, I didn’t have the ability to come home to Kansas City for the High Holy Days. Thankfully, the Jewish community of Los Angeles took me in as one of their own. My friend and I even received an invitation to a Second-Day Rosh HaShanah seder from a rabbinical student that we didn’t even know that well, but who wanted to extend his family’s kindness and welcome us to the table.
Now, what makes this story worth telling (besides the obvious lesson of the impact one can have on inviting an acquaintance to a holiday meal) is that I, in my blindness to anything but Ashkenazi Judaism, had missed the fact that I was walking into a Persian home. Among many obvious factors that could have clued me in, the top one should have been that I was invited to a Rosh HaShanah seder and not a Rosh HaShanah dinner.
I was very much surprised, but quickly delighted to see the spread: pumpkin seeds, scallions, string beans, black eyed peas, dates, pomegranates, apples…and then there was…the fish head. The symbolism of a fish head sitting on the table without the rest of the body, is that we should be like heads, leaders, and not like tails, stragglers. Persian Jews did not pull this idea from just anywhere, the reasoning appears in our Torah Portion this week, Ki Tavo. Tucked away as blessings and curses are detailed, comes the line:
וּנְתָנְךָ יְהוָה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב
“God will make you like the head and not the tail.”*
If you follow the blessings, you will lead and not be like stragglers or followers. Then, later in the curses section, the text is flipped. If the Israelites do not follow God’s ways, then they will be like the tail and not the head, they will be followers unable to lead.
Let’s be the fish heads! Let’s forge and lead our own path into the new year. Begin your journey with us this Saturday night with our beautiful Selichot service (it is brief but powerful). Hear the melodies, watch the changing of the Torah mantels, and center yourself for the new year.
7:00pm Selichot Service